Once upon a time there were two vases made by Michelangelo. They were gorgeous. They were offered up for auction and the first one brought a world-record price—at least until the second one was sold 15 minutes later. Both brought over $500K more than the auction estimate (and most had thought the auction estimates were too high)
The first one was bought by a mob boss. He gave it to his 80-year-old mother for Christmas. She put it on the kitchen windowsill in her small cottage in the mountains. She filled it half full of water and put a peony from her garden in it.
The second one was bought by a Japanese investor. He kept it in a safe, inside another safe in a private office that he visits maybe once a year. The last time he went, he didn’t even look at it.
The first vase felt really good about himself. “I can see why they paid millions of dollars for me! Look at how I’m holding this water. No leaks! The flower is held perfectly still and I never sag, bend or tip. This flower never wiggles while I’m on the job. Did I mention that I never leak? Wow, I’m such a wonderful vase! Even at my record price, I was a bargain!”
The second vase, sitting there in the dark, thought, “Well, I’m totally worthless. I never do anything. I just sit here in the dark doing nothing. I haven’t even seen the light of day in 13 months. I may as well be a rock or a piece of dust or a dead roach. Why pay millions for me when I never even do anything! Does anyone even know I’m here? How is this different than a landfill?
One day the first vase got rinsed out, refilled and a new flower! He felt even better about himself as not even new water (maybe 2 ml more!) and a heavier peony was too much for him. “Is there no limit to my awesomeness!” he thought as he looked across the room and watched the old lady rummaging around in the garbage. She pulled out a large old beer bottle (he couldn’t help but notice it had a chip on the lip and a tear in the label). She brought it over to the sink and filled it almost to the top with water and put 2 peonies in it. After 24 hours of watching the bottle, he was seriously considering throwing himself off the shelf. “What good am I? Why would someone pay millions for me when a broken beer bottle out of the trash is doing twice as much as she ever asks me to do?”
Meanwhile back in the safe in the safe, it has been 15 months without fresh air or even a speck of light. “My life has no meaning—I am doing nothing. This man may just as well have burned millions of dollars in the fireplace. There is no difference. I wish I had never been made.”
Oh, by the way, three months ago a third vase by Michelangelo was donated to the Louvre. Thousands of people ooh and ahh at it every day. He thinks he’s worthless too, though, since no one ever paid even a penny for him. “I was just given away for free! Am I so worthless that I couldn’t even fetch $1.50 in a yard sale?” But, the more he thought about it, he realized that he probably was worthless—he’d never worked a day in his life. He’d never held water, or even a flower. He’d never contributed to society by fulfilling his (obvious!) calling of working as a vase.
Meanwhile, a fourth Michelangelo vase was just inherited by a guy named Tony in Paulding, Ohio. He only knew it as an ugly old vase from his great-grandmother’s house. Only he (and his ignorant ancestors) had seen it for the last 400 years, and none of them had the slightest clue what it was and that it was worth a fortune. The more Tony looked at it, though, the more he realized that it really had some potential. He’d been working with pottery for a couple of years now, and he had an eye for this sort of thing. Even though this was made out of some sort of rock he figured it would work about the same. He broke off some of the extremely out-of-date (and really over-the-top) ornamentation and sanded it down beautifully with his high-tech electronic diamond-tipped sanding tool he’d paid several hundred dollars for on the internet. Anyway, he then distressed it with an electric drill (“This will make it look old and valuable!”) and stained it with just 3 colors of chemical. He was really proud of it, and several of his friends really liked it too. The vase loved all the attention and enjoyed his new look. “Contemporary with an ancient valuable feel!” is how he described his reimagined self. He had no idea he was now totally worthless and destined, eventually, for the landfill.